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Youth frontliners lead charge for green future

No longer content with taking a back seat to environmentalism, young Gen Z leaders are offering their own solutions to an urgent global concern.

By Zhong Yutong | China Daily | Updated: 2024-03-27 06:46
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Young representatives pose for a photo with Poman Lo (fourth from right in the back row) at the One Earth Summit in Hong Kong on March 25. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"Environmental issues should not be dealt with only by adults," said Yan Leilei, 12, from Shanghai. Yan, a student at Shanghai High School, was among the over 20 young representatives at the One Earth Summit (OES) in Hong Kong on March 25.

Themed "Planetary Crossroads: Investing in Innovations for a Sustainable Future", the summit served as a platform for international policymakers, industry leaders, scholars, and youth to engage in discussions centered around sustainability. Its goal was to foster action-oriented dialogues aimed at achieving a net-zero, nature-positive transition both regionally and globally.

"Finally I have the opportunity to learn alongside such a diverse group of esteemed global figures in sustainability," said Xue Leyi, a 16-year-old student from the High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China.

Before attending the OES, Xue participated in the 8th Model Climate Change Conference of Parties held by Tsinghua University and UNESCO Multisectoral Regional Office for East Asia. By playing the role of a delegate of India, Xue gained insights into the complexity of climate negotiations and global climate governance.

"Every country, whether developed or developing, has its own unique strengths, responsibilities, concerns, and needs. But ultimately, we all share one planet," she said.

As China aims to reach its carbon peak before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060, the country also seeks to ensure economic stability and maintain energy and food security.

During last year's COP28 climate change conference, Liu Zhenmin, China's current special envoy for climate change, said that China had done substantial work in carbon emission reduction as the world's second-largest economy. He highlighted China's breakthroughs in renewable energy, which have boosted the global energy transition, and said that China will continue to reduce coal's prominence among primary energy resources.

Youth are also actively contributing to the cause. Cui Huachen, 17, a student at the Affiliated High School of Peking University and an enthusiast of fashion and photography, found her calling during a school trip to the wetlands of the Zoige Plateau in Southwest China.

She was moved when she saw that the local people and government have invested decades of daily efforts into combating wetland desertification, which is crucial for sustaining water conservation upstream of the Yellow River. Therefore, Cui dedicated herself to creating fashionable items using recycled materials. She started a school club named "Frame Design "to promote sustainable fashion among her peers.

Dealing with climate change also requires global collaboration. "Different oceans are interconnected," said Li Yuqiao, a 17-year-old student at the Shanghai United International School, Gubei Secondary Campus, and a passionate scuba diver. During his visit to Koh Lipe in Thailand, he saw considerable coral bleaching and dying reefs due to pollutants and rising seawater temperatures.

Aspiring to pursue environmental science in college, Li has been working toward creating a cleaner and more vibrant ocean by initiating a series of activities with his friends worldwide. Together, they've organized 23 cleanup events in ocean waters, during which they collected a total of 907.8 kilograms of trash. Li also conducted workshops on marine ecosystem protection for younger students in his hometown of Shanghai and delved into studying both domestic and global public policies on ocean environment governance.

This group of young environmentalists, proudly self-dubbed as "Planet Pioneers", combines lofty aspirations with practical measures. Through their interdisciplinary research and community-centered endeavors, they are committed to making tangible contributions toward mitigating climate change.

Zhou Zihan, 16, was inspired by historical figures like Guy Stewart Callendar, an English steam engineer and one of the earliest data-driven climate change pioneers. He was also intrigued by the "FuXi-Subseasonal "model, developed by scientists from the Shanghai Academy of Artificial Intelligence for Science, Fudan University, and China's National Climate Center. Still a student at Shanghai Pinghe School, Zhou aspires to become a data scientist who tackles global challenges by providing solid quantitative evidence and intelligible information to the public.

"Today, we have gathered the most influential business leaders, and leaders from the public sector, academia, and philanthropic sectors. Therefore, we can collectively drive this transition and foster public-private philanthropic partnerships to support technologies," said Poman Lo, convener of the OES and founder of the Institute of Sustainability and Technology.

"They need not only capital, but also an ecosystem to help them scale, connect to all the resources and networks, and fine-tune their business models for our shared future and future generations."

When questioned by Emily Ma, a student from Hong Kong, about the key messages Generation Z should bear in mind in the critical battle against climate change, Lo responded affirmatively, stating that young people should "understand the urgency", "have hope that it's possible to do well by doing good", and acknowledge that "we are all interconnected".

Written by Zhong Yutong, a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University.

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